Monday, January 4, 2010

Starman (1984)

Part IV in a John Carpenter film quest.

Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen
Written by:
Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon
Directed by: John Carpenter

John Carpenter's Starman is often referred to as a mature E.T., or "E.T. for adults", if you will (an all-too-common comparison). And indeed the movie does appear to be an about-face from his other work (thus far). There's a distinct optimism at work here, as this is definitely a benign, romantic movie. And I don't mean that in a negative light, but if you take the pessimism of Escape from New York, this movie is a complete opposite. It's almost as if Carpenter's showing the other side of himself. It's a John Carpenter love story (and all that that implies). I've heard people say this "isn't really a Carpenter movie". And while it is different in tone, it definitely does have a few Carpenter touches (think the noted disdain he has for authority).

Karen Allen plays Jenny Hayden, a woman stranded in life without hope or faith. She still hasn't gotten over the death of her husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges), from an accident a few months back. Her nights are spent reliving the happy days with home movies and wine, before retiring to a fitful rest to endure the next day. It is on one of these nights that an alien visitor lands in her rural Wisconsin home. The visitor came in response to the Voyager II probe (launched back in 1977 with a message of peace and invitation), and was knocked off-course by the armed welcoming party of the U.S. government (you can tell who the bad guys are, already). Inside Jenny's house, the visitor (thus far, a pinpoint of blue light) finds a lock of Scott's hair, and proceeds to clone an earthly vessel, in his exact image. The visitor explains that he can't survive for long in Earth's atmosphere, and must reach the Great Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona in three days' time. Feeling sympathy for the alien stranger, Jenny agrees accompany him on the road trip.

No doubt there are E.T. comparisons to be made with this sci-fi setup. But one of the remarkable things about Starman is that Carpenter pulls a 180 and handles it like a road movie (think Capra's It Happened One Night). Both Starman and Jenny start out as two opposing characters, who eventually begin to grow closer and even love each other. As they draw further away from Wisconsin, Jenny learns more about Starman's people and life on his home planet.

The movie hinges on the strength of the lead actors. And this is certainly one of Bridges' finest performances (completely deserving of his Oscar nomination for this movie). There is no Jeff Bridges here - only Starman. We truly believe he is a visitor, grappling with the insane customs and people of this planet; someone who is pure at heart, and lacking the savagery of the people of Earth. And Karen Allen skillfully plays the emotionally vulnerable (and resonant) widow, forced to interact with an alien being in the guise of her dead husband; as if to ask, "can you imagine the pain that woman is going through?" - but it's all there in her performance. Allen was in top form in this movie.

The comparisons to E.T. are evident, though Carpenter steers clear of the cliches that audiences will see in the tasteless knockoff, Mac and Me (1988). Starman, like E.T. is a benevolent visitor; he received our message and he's here out of curiosity. And there's a broken home (in a sense) in both movies. With Elliott's family, there's the void left by his missing father. For Jenny, it's the emptiness in her life left by her dead husband. And both alien visitors are pursued by the U.S. government (along with friendly scientists Peter Coyote, and Charles Martin Smith), providing the looming threat of capture.

But Carpenter makes it clear this isn't just another E.T. knockoff. He makes Starman his own, and as a result, produces the warmest and most heartening movie of his career.


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